Transcription: Useful Guides for Students and Researchers

Transcription: Useful Guides for Students and Researchers  

Over the last term, a colleague and I at the University of Bristol taught a new course examining ‘voices’ from the past. We explored a range of voice-gathering projects, from transcripts of late eighteenth-century criminal proceedings to modern oral history interviews. As Alexander Freund has recently pointed out, the gathering, recording and dissemination of voices all have a long history and leave behind a variety of archival traces.[i] Each week we tackled a different way in which ‘voices’ from the past had been recorded and questioned how reliable these attempts at voice-gathering were. By the end of term, it became clear that each week had yielded a very different type of transcript (loosely defined) and that there were challenges in using every single one of them.

But during our final week on digital recording devices – and the potentials of using YouTube or various digital bookmarking tools – an important question emerged: was there still value in producing written transcripts of oral history interviews ourselves? There followed an emphatic “yes!” It was felt that, despite the evident issues in transposing spoken words to written prose, transcription was vital not only in terms of dissemination but as a learning and reflective tool, helping the researcher to pay closer attention to the detail and intricacies of the spoken word.

What resources then are available for students and researchers still looking to produce a transcript themselves, beyond guidance given in standard referencing guides? Below are a list of some guidelines and articles that I have found useful in teaching and research, although doubtless other useful resources exist (which members are very welcome to share using the “Comment” function below). Happy transcribing!

Grace Huxford, University of Bristol

Transcription guides and advice

  • Baylor University Transcription Guide – a long-standing, comprehensive guide produced by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. The guide is based on the Chicago Manual of Style, with particularly helpful sections on using punctuation effectively and accurately.
  • Minnesota Historical Society – guidelines on producing and editing a transcript for oral historians, with useful guidance on being consistent with false starts, simultaneous speech and ‘habitual qualifiers’.
  • East Midlands Oral History Archive – Transcription is the subject of no. 15 of the EMOHA’s clear and concise guides to various aspects of oral history.
  • Linda Shopes “Transcribing Oral History in the Digital Age,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, – a thoughtful article on the place of transcription alongside digital technologies, with a particularly useful set of questions transcribers should ask themselves.
  • Digital Omnium (blog produced by Doug Boyd) – a range of resources and blog posts on oral history, digital technology and archiving, including a March 2017 post on Transcribing Tips and the challenges of verbatim transcription.
  • Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed, 2003) – a useful guide on many practical aspects of oral history methodology, especially for those starting out with oral history and transcription.
  • Alexander Freund, ‘From .wav to .txt: why we still need transcripts in the digital age’ Oral History (Spring 2017): 33-42. Five arguments in favour of transcription and discussion of transcription in the era of digital indexing tools.

[i] Alexander Freund, ‘“Confessing Animals”: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview’ Oral History Review, 41, 1 (2014), 1-26.



Conference report: Spaces of Memory

This month’s post is written by the organisers of the ‘Spaces of Remembering and Forgetting’ Conference (11-12 May 2017), Flora Derounian, Amy King and Chad McDonald. Flora, Amy and Chad are all PhD students at the University of Bristol and organise the Memory Studies Research Cluster for the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. 

In mid-May, the Memory Studies Research Cluster of the SWW DTP held its first conference. Spaces of Remembering and Forgetting began with a screening of Chasing Shadows introduced by director Naomi Gryn. The film follows Naomi’s father, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, as he returns to his hometown of Berehovo, which he left when he was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 13 (along with his family and 15,000 other Jews). The documentary and Q&A explored ideas around memory and place, the role of the witness and the duty of remembrance.

Memory Studies Conf 1

The conference began with a Question Time-style debate on oral history with Tim Cole, Grace Huxford, Josie McLellan and Sarah Street. Questions from the audience included:

“In South Africa we have eleven official languages, which are connected to power and knowledge systems. How should we think about the associated power relations of language and the role this plays in oral histories?”

The panel reminded us that interviewer and interviewee may not share the same framework of meaning and differences may arise within communities too. Language is unstable and meaning changes over time, so interviewers must be aware of the context in which language is used. Finally, the panel said that the language of experience may be different to the language of retelling.

“How can we give new life to archived oral history recordings?”

Archives are an underused source of oral history recordings, but using existing recordings changes the nature of oral history and a new methodology may be required. However, the digital will encourage more engagement with existing interviews held in smaller archives.

The panels kicked off with a fascinating and complimentary set of papers given by Flora Derounian, Charlotte Walmsley, and Ayshka Sené. The papers interrogated how women are exceptional bearers of national memory, and featured compelling excerpts from video and audio testimonies with nuns and ex-Resistance fighters. The originality of the next panel was apparent to the audience, when Martin Hurcombe and Pip Gregory explored artefacts of memory such as commemorative boxes given to conscripted soldiers and cartoons. Both papers presented unusual methodologies with which to read memory. Fittingly, the final panel was something of a look to the future, with Steven Paige poetically presenting his findings and reflections on the labyrinth archives of the Library of Congress, and Anna Varadi exploiting online resource ‘Netflix’ to see what can be said about contemporary nostalgia in television. Although but a snapshot of the papers presented, it should now be obvious that the conference was an opportunity to showcase the original and exciting work which is being undertaken in the field of memory studies.

The day closed with a fascinating keynote lecture from Dr Juliette Pattinson, who presented the findings from her latest co-authored book Men in Reserve. Juliette started her talk by discussing the popular perception of the British Home Front as having been populated only by women, children and the elderly. Her research showed this to be false. The project team collected and analysed 56 oral history interviews to shed light on the largely forgotten stories of men who worked in the reserved occupations, exploring why these men had been forgotten and how their stories challenge our understanding of masculinity during wartime.

The research had a personal dimension for Juliette because her grandfather, Jack Gale, was a member of the reserved occupations as a policeman. For a short version of the talk, see Juliette’s recent TEDx talk hosted at the University of Kent.

Memory Studies Conf 2

The Memory Studies Research Cluster wishes to thank the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership for funding the conference. We are really looking forward to holding future events that bring together oral history and memory studies. Please follow us on Twitter for updates: @MemoryStudiesSW.




Teaching and Being Taught Oral History – Personal Reflections

Last Saturday, the Oral History Society Higher Education (HE) Group and the Institute of Historical Research hosted an event on ‘Teaching Oral History in Higher Education’. At this thought-provoking event, participants discussed in depth the challenges and potentials of teaching oral history at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and I’m sure that many exciting developments will be emerging from these discussions in due course.

On a personal note, the day prompted me to consider the different ways in which I have taught (and been taught) oral history. I was first exposed to oral history as a postgraduate student, attending Warwick Oral History Network’s conference on ‘Gender, Subjectivity and Oral History’ in 2011. This conference opened my eyes to oral history as a methodology and the different ways in which researchers were using it. Encouraged and enthused, I sought out further training and resources. But at no point was I ever formally ‘taught’ oral history at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Several entries in the Oral History Review’s recent blog series on oral history #OriginStories similarly suggest that many people enter the field through local or personal connections, volunteer work or through training courses, rather than through formal teaching.

But the situation is changing. There are many exciting opportunities now for undergraduate and postgraduate students to engage with oral history, both as a classroom activity and as a method of assessment. Digital humanities too has widened the ways in which students engage with oral history, as Steven Sielaff has recently argued. Oral history has also been credited with improving student confidence and team-working abilities (Booth, 2003). In short, it is an exciting time to be teaching oral history.

Amid this excitement, it is still important to remember that oral history can be a daunting methodology, at whatever level. It can also be a time-consuming and potentially expensive method of research, particularly for shorter undergraduate assessments. It requires a large amount of forward-planning and that first interview can sometimes be an overwhelming experience.  How then can students engage with the methodology within the parameters of a degree course?

Some initial thoughts: Graham Smith’s argument that starting with pre-existing oral history collections, rather than conducting interviews, is one potential way to start familiarising students with oral history methodology and analysis (Smith, 2010). Many excellent national and local collections facilitate this approach. On a more theoretical level, Alan Booth has suggested that asking students to produce their own autobiographical stories or ‘personal critical incidents’ in History classes helps students appreciate, in a very practical sense, the important historical themes of memory and identity (Booth, 2003). More practically, student-created university oral history projects such as at University of East Anglia (led by Camilla Schofield) also provide students with the opportunity to conduct their own interviews as part of a student project with support from university alumni associations.

There are therefore a growing range of possibilities for teaching oral history at university, as evidenced by the ‘Teaching Oral History in Higher Education’ event hosted by the OHS and IHR andI am really looking forward to seeing more developments in this area.

Grace Huxford, Bristol.



Alan Booth, Teaching History at University (London, 2003).

Graham Smith, Oral History (Historical Insights: Focus on Research), (Warwick 2010).